It’s 1943. As air-raid sirens blare in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, eight-year-old Saburo walks through the peach forests of Taoyuan. The least favored son of a Taiwanese politician, Saburo is in no hurry to get home to the taunting and abuse he suffers at the hands of his parents and older brother. In the forest he meets Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival.
Set in a tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history—as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claim to the island and one autocracy replaces another—The Third Son tells the story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free himself from both.
Cover Gushing Worthiness: The cover of The Third Son is gorgeous. The blend of colours and the silhouette of the little boy amongst the circling airplanes is beautiful. It easily is one of my favourite covers of the year so far.
Review: There are two things that drew me to this book 1: The cover and 2. the setting of Taiwan. I’ve never read any fiction about Taiwan and not many people know about the country/region. The only reason I know a little bit about Taiwan is because of my East Asian history courses I took in history. I actually kept my notes for all those classes and I thought I’d share a little bit just so people can have a mini history lesson on the country. Well here goes nothing, don’t worry they’re just bullet points!
- Occupied by different people, Dutch, Portuguese, Ming Dynasty.
- In 1895 the Japanese occupied Taiwan and were fierce in putting down the Aboriginal people’s insurrection.
- A modernization program was set in place by the Japanese.
- The 1930′s saw the assimilation of Taiwanese into the Japanese society.
- In 1945 the Guomingdang arrived
- 228 Incident- In 1948 an uprising against the Guomingdang occurred and anyone with connections to the Japanese were imprisoned or their properties were confiscated.
- A military dictatorship under Chang Kai Shek began and lasted till 1975.
- Chen Shui- Bian knocked the Guomingdang out of power and was elected in 2000.
- He was voted out of office in 2008.
As the synopsis from netgalley says the story of The Third Son follows Saburo, the third son of a prominent politician. Blamed for the death of his younger brother, Saburo is seen as the black sheep of the family and receives hardly any attention from his family while his older brother Kazuo is lavished as the first-born. Told in two parts, Part I taking place from 1943-1957 in Taiwan and Part II taking place between 1957-1962 in the United States, The Third Son follows Saburo as the fates are kind to him and gives him what he has desired for so long, however will he follow his passions or succumb to his family’s wishes?
I thought the story of The Third Son was beautiful. It reminded me of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club in its narration. For some reason I thought there was a Part III in the book and I do think it could have benefited with breaking down the story into three parts, especially after Saburo is reunited with his family. I say ‘family’ because I don’t want to spoil the book for people. When you read it you’ll get the idea! Personally I enjoyed Part I more than Part II of the book. This is probably because the story took place in Taiwan, the whole reason I wanted to read this book. There was something so organic and so real about experiencing Saburo’s life in Taiwan. The beautiful landscapes, the people, the politics – it made you feel like you were engaged in Saburo’s life and maybe the reason it was captivating might have been because the world was seen through the eyes of a child. You experience beauty, nostalgia, innocence, basically a plethora of emotions. In comparison to Part I, Part II felt a little bit flat for me. It’s not because it took place in America, but I felt the story became detached from the reader. I mean you were experiencing certain feelings throughout Part II, but it wasn’t at the same intensity as Part I and I’m not sure if it’s because Saburo is an adult in Part II.
It was interesting to see the politics in Taiwan at the time. You could feel a sense of helplessness and anger by the population as they were enduring occupation after occupation. I thought this conversation between Saburo’s father, a railroad commissioner and a magistrate portrayed a sense of what the people felt at the time. Politics and loyalty is an integral part of The Third Son.
At least the Japanese were not corrupt. If you broke a rule, they tortured you-
Killed you mean-
If you didn’t, they left you alone.
They knew how to govern. How to grow industry, how to run the railroad. They wanted a good economy. They weren’t just out to strip the land and sell everything to the motherland for profit.
Yes, while these ua-shing-a ship all our rice to their troops in China.
They’re saying we hoard it.
Of course they deny it! We can tell. The people at the docks can all see the rice being loaded onto ships.
At least the Japanese knew how to distribute rice. No one like the rationing, but-
But at least they cared whether we ate.
Don’t forget how many people they killed during the resistance.
Well, but it was straightforward. It was an armed resistance, like a war. What I’m talking about is-
Fool! Remember that ‘amnesty celebration’ where they slaughtered their guests of honor? How many were there? Three hundred?
We don’t need the Japanese or the Mainlanders
The dogs go and the pigs come
Character wise I really liked Saburo and his narration. For some reason in my head I kept on calling him “Subaru” and then when I took a closer look at the spelling of his name I realized that I had been wrong about his name as I was reading the entire story. Throughout the story you rooted for him. You wanted him to defy his family and be the man you as a reader you knew he could be. You wanted him to embrace modernity and carve his own path in life instead of listening to his parents. As a reader you could really sense his struggle between adhering to tradition and embracing the freedom of the west. I think a lot of us who are from Asia have the same struggles. How do you keep to tradition which is so deep-rooted in your culture and embrace modernization at the same time.? I thought Toru’s Math teacher summed up Saburo perfectly.
You know, I know why Toru likes you. You’re just like him. Aware of convention but burdened by it.
Burdened by it?
Yes. I do hope you end up happier, though.
I have to admit, Saburo kind of fell flat for me in Part II. I’m not sure how to describe it, but his demeanor changed in the second part. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate his struggles as an immigrant at a time when there was so much racism and hardship, it was that he became distant from the reader if that makes any sense. I can’t say that I was entirely focused on his studies. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate his brilliance, it’s just that math and physics aren’t exactly my forte subjects.
Ahhh Part II why couldn’t you be as engaging as Part I of this story? Moving onto Yoshiko, I was rooting for her and Saburo from the moment those two met. I was fuming when Kazuo made a move for her. I was literally thinking “okay no, you’re supposed to end up with Saburo!! Not his jerk of a brother.” Honestly their meeting was one of the most beautiful aspects of the book. It was so innocent and pure. Then when they met as adults I wanted them to immediately get together. Anyways I’m trying hard not to give anything away and I really hope I don’t! She was a great character in Part I. I admired her independence and how she was determined to make her own way in life which had been cruel to her in some aspects. I liked how gutsy she was. I think my affection for her stemmed from the fact that she was physically present in Part I. The interactions were real and sincere. However in Part II because she was physically absent I wasn’t quite fond of her. Not that she had prominent flaws or anything, it’s just I didn’t feel like I saw her character mature in Part II because of her absence. Her letters didn’t convey any sign of development which made me sad. However I admired her strength and her love for Saburo shone through towards the end. She always had his back no matter what and she was always encouraging him.
As for Saburo’s family I can’t say I cared much for them. I really detested the way they treated Saburo. I couldn’t quite believe parents can treat their own children that way. As far as I was concerned he didn’t owe them anything. At the same time I think Saburo is one of those children who is an absolute saint in a way. No matter how badly he was treated, he showed respect to his parents, it may have been out of fear. I think that just goes to show you how familial relationships function in societies deeply immersed in tradition and culture.
I wish we had gotten to see more of Toru. He seemed like Saburo’s only ally since childhood. He was a sympathetic character and I’m glad that we got know a bit more about him in Part II of the book. I can honestly say I disliked Saburo’s older brother Kazuo. Half the time I wanted to punch him. I was somewhat glad that he was largely absent for the most part in the second half of the book.
I thought the ending of the book was a fitting one. We all love the story of the underdog and we’re ecstatic when they succeed.
Overall The Third Son was an enjoyable read. I wish Part II was much more of an engaging narrative, but don’t let it deter you from picking up this book. The story is beautiful. It captures the struggle so many of us face in becoming our own person while holding onto the traditions and beliefs that have been instilled in us from the moment we were born. It is also the story of the American Dream and one man’s desire to make it a reality.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Would I recommend it? Yes
The Third Son is published by Algonquin Books and will be available in bookstores on April 30, 2013. This ARC was provided by Netgalley. Thank You Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Tea to go with this book: Northern Lights Herbal Tea from David’s Tea. For some reason I always associate the Northern Lights with hope. This story is very much about hope and determination.